Access to finance has long been identified as one of the major barriers preventing more women from developing successful businesses. But how far are the banks to blame for this state of affairs?
A 2005 study by Warwick Business School found that banks typically charged female-owned businesses one percentage point more in interest on business loans despite the fact that female-owned businesses were more likely to use an accountant and more likely to seek external advice than majority male-owned businesses.
Meanwhile, separate research by the Paris-based Forum for Women Entrepreneurs & Executives found that venture capitalists in Europe were also shunning investments in companies run by women.
Female-run firms receive less than 2.5 per cent of the total venture-capital investment in Europe - which was €3.5 billion in 2004, the Forum found.
In the UK, public policy initiatives intended to increase female self-employment have made no impact on the proportion of businesses owned or operated by women. Only 15 per cent of businesses are female-owned and the 26 per cent share of self-employed women has not altered in 15 years.
This modest record contrasts sharply with other countries, particularly the USA where female self-employment has risen each year since 1976 and currently stands at a share of 39.6 per cent.
But now new research funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council has argued that banks are not institutionally biased against female-owned businesses.
Yet while it says there is no evidence that banks deliberately discriminate against women business owners, banking staff are often responsible for inadvertently putting women at a disadvantage and need more training to meet the needs of female customers.
The research, carried out at the University of Glasgow and the University of Stirling, questioned 35 male and female loan officers at an unnamed national bank to find out why women felt they were not being treated equally.
What emerged is that lending decisions by individual bank loan officers can reflect their own biased gender perceptions and opinions. It also found that bias is just as likely among male and female officers.
Some unexpected differences also emerged between male and female bank loan officers. Female officers had less effective personal networks for introducing new business loan applications and less strong internal communications with credit controllers.
"Gender really does permeate and affect women's experience of business ownership" said Professor Fiona Wilson, one of the three researchers who carried out the study.
"Our observations suggest that because of differences in age and industry experience, women can be viewed as possessing significantly less human and social capital prior to setting up their businesses than men."
The study found than more women than men used external bank finance, but the total amount borrowed was substantially smaller than male bank borrowings. Women's businesses were smaller than those owned by men, while women were, on average ten years younger than the men, suggesting a lack of previous industry, business and management experience and lower levels of network contacts.
The men started businesses with three times the amount of capital and their personal investment was twice as high as that used by women. Being ten years older, men also had more extensive industry experience and better networks of contacts.
Durham Business School tutor Dinah Bennett, who has developed relationship management courses for the banking industry and who last year won the Queen's Award for Enterprise Promotion, argues that in many cases, banks simply reflect entrenched attitudes and misunderstand of the needs of women entrepreneurs.
"Women entrepreneurs are often seen as hobbyists or dabblers. It may also be harder for them when it comes to credit scoring if they have taken time out to raise children or for elder care," she said.